Chances are, if you're around my age and human, you were one of the 52.5 million people who watched the Friends series finale back in 2004...In which case, you may recall the last scene where each cast member woefully set their keys on the kitchen counter and said farewell to their rent-controlled NYC apartment, before all filing out into the hallway, headed to get one last coffee at Central Perk. The cameras panned the empty living space as the light gradually dimmed and that was a wrap.
Five years ago, I had my own Friends-like final act as I left my apartment keys on my housemate's desk, closed the door behind me and said good-bye to my life in San Francisco. It all faded to black as I helped myself to several large glasses of wine in the United Club lounge at San Francisco's International Airport.
With tears in my eyes and excitement in my heart, I boarded the 19:40 flight from SFO to Heathrow. I had no idea what London had in store for me, but I had an open mind, all my worldly belongings packed into five suitcases and a shiny new Tier 2 Inter-Company Transfer Long-Term Staff Migrant work visa.
But first, let's back up to the manic days, back in August 2014, leading up to the aforementioned transatlantic flight.
Six days pre-relocation, I flew from California to Connecticut, for the weekend, to celebrate my grandmother's 100th birthday.
It would have been convenient if I could have moved to Europe directly from the East Coast, rather than going back west first, but I still hadn't received my UK work visa (which was being delivered to San Francisco).
At the end of the celebratory centenary weekend, for some reason which I can no longer recall, my return flight was cancelled. I finally made it back to the Bay Area late in the day on Monday (25th August). My passport/visa arrived on Tuesday (26th August), the red-eye flight departed on Wednesday (27th August) and I touched down in my new homeland on Thursday (28th August).
Deepak Chopra was right that 'all great changes are preceded by chaos', but what this journey taught me was that disorder often also succeeds change.
By the time I got to LHR, I must have been some combination of stressed, delirious, eager and/or unaccustomed to checking luggage because, after disembarking, I breezed through immigration and walked straight past the baggage collection area. I exited customs and entered the arrivals lobby, without any of my belongings.
It wasn't until I saw a man holding a sign with my company's name on it (whom work had graciously organized to come and fetch me), that I realized that I was empty-handed. The driver asked me if I was ready to go and must have thought I was an absolute numpty when I explained that I still needed to collect my luggage.
Re-entry, after clearing customs, is forbidden, so I couldn't simply turn around and retrieve my stuff. I was unlucky in locating an information desk, but did come across a bank of telephones. I picked up the receiver and let it ring. No answer. I then noticed a sign indicating to 'dial 999 in case of emergency'. I was acutely aware that this situation did not qualify as a catastrophe, but I decided to give it a go anyway. It was a low moment for me when I had to explain my situation, out loud, to the operator. Emergency Services informed the imbecile American on my end of the line that this was not an urgent circumstance and that they were unable to provide assistance. I'm quite certain that I heard a snicker prior to the dial tone.
Just before the onset of a full panic attack, I found an airport employee, in a high-vis vest, who pitied me enough to come to my aid. He summoned another security guard who had me complete a form, go through a screening in a tiny, private room and endure seemingly endless questioning before escorting me back to baggage claim. There, everything I owned was circling the carousel. The security guard asked me if I had ever traveled before, had a hearty laugh at my expense and told me he couldn't wait to share this story with his wife that evening. He wished me a sardonic 'good luck' with my new life in the United Kingdom, because I'd quite obviously need it. Looking back, it was the most quintessentially British welcome I could have possibly received!
Four days following my arrival into London, on 1st September 2014, I began my new job. For the first work week, I was put up in a charming 16th-century hotel, along the Thames, where my wheeled suitcase rolled across the slanted floor if I didn't lay it down flat. During that week I managed to secure an interim, one-month flat rental, through a friend of a colleague. The apartment was for sale and mostly unfurnished, but was suitable short-term. It was also located in the same area of town where I was looking to procure a more permanent option, which proved to be rather convenient.
Over the next three weeks, on all my free evenings, I viewed flats. Boy did I view flats. I saw sixty-odd places before I eventually found somewhere I was proud to call home. It was a happy day, back in early October 2014, when I settled into a three-bedroom flat in a Victorian building (with a lovely roof terrace), in southwest London, which became my beloved residence for the next five years.
Once the basics were sorted (employment, relocation, housing) and all my belongings were in their rightful places, I felt settled and began to enjoy my new European life.
Despite the fact that my company held my fate in their hands, and I relied on my continued employment to remain in the country, I enjoyed the job. Managing global, multi-million dollar marketing/media campaigns, I finally gained that 'international work experience' that I had already been claiming on my LinkedIn profile for many years prior.
My colleagues, who endearingly called me 'Sherrington,' 'Shezza' or 'Bircher', made fun of me, daily, for my (mis)pronunciations and my general lack of British knowledge. I was constantly blamed for anything that was deemed a US shortcoming (being too literal, butchering the 'English' language or whatever Trump happened to be doing at the moment), but it was all in jest.
The work culture demanded that I dial down my aggressive American manner and learn to be 'fluffier' (which was the actual term my boss used during my first performance review). I wouldn't say that I was wildly successful in this endeavor, but I did make a concerted effort.
When I wasn't at work, I could be found photographing London's iconic sights, indulging in afternoon tea, having a Sunday roast (only on a Sundays, of course, I'm not uncivilized) and/or trialing foods/beverages in a city where a new restaurant/bar opened just about every two days. *Fun fact - You're never more than 7 meters from a pub when in the UK's capital.
I found London to be vibrant, with everything I could want or need just a slow hour's distance from my doorstep.
During my five years in London, I attended many sporting events, including Premier League matches, cricket, polo, boat races, Rugby 7's, America's Cup World Series (sailing), Wimbledon, Football World Cup, Royal Ascot, Rugby World Cup and the first ever MLB London series (Red Sox vs Yankees).
I went to concerts, comedy shows, the theater and even a few museums. I rode the London Eye, climbed the Tower Bridge and zip-lined across the South Bank.
London’s cultural dynamism made it easy to become friends with a varied group of people who introduced me to new cultures, customs and traditions. I developed lifelong friendships and experienced moments that have turned into lasting memories.
Old and new friends, from previous walks of my life, frequently intersected in London, making it an easy place to keep in touch.
I took full advantage of London's connectedness with the rest of the UK, Europe and the world. On average, I took about 15 trips each year. In my five-year UK stint, I visited 45 countries, across five continents (indicated in green on the map below), many of them on multiple occasions.
Politically, I observed the historic referendum where Scotland voted against ending it's 307-year-old union with UK. I witnessed Brexit, the political crisis that was, and still is, plaguing Britain, following it's decision to leave the European Union. I saw David Cameron resign as UK Prime Minister and be succeeded by Theresa May. May subsequently stepped down, after being unsuccessful in negotiating a Brexit strategy and Boris Johnson took over. I, frighteningly, watched as Donald Trump won the US Presidency and did my part to combat it by taking part in Women's March on London. I felt sorrow for the victims of the Islamic terror attacks at Westminster Bridge, London Bridge and the Manchester Arena. I watched Prince Harry wed Meghan Markle and spawn, Kate and Will had a couple more children (Charlotte & Louis) and Queen Elizabeth turned 93.
I realized just how much I loved my life in London after my car accident in Brazil, in May 2017. During the five months I spent convalescing in the US, I had a lot of time to think and reflect. There were many times when I physically felt the metaphorical strings of homecoming pulling me back to Blighty.
My time in London was a learning experience which I could never have gotten from any book. I discovered that I was an Anglophile at heart and gained a new sense of self along the way. Who knew I'd learn to tolerate climatic bleakness, mind gaps, drink tea, queue in an orderly fashion, acquire a whole new vocabulary and start apologizing for everything (even when not my fault)?
It took a fair bit of time, but I ultimately learned how to properly do my laundry in Britain. On my four-year UK anniversary, I was informed, by my very kind housemate, that I’d been using fabric conditioner (aka fabric softener), instead of detergent. None of my clothes/linens had actually been cleaned in nearly half a decade, but they sure were soft and fragrant.
I also now know that I wholeheartedly agree with Oscar Wilde that, 'humour is far superior to humor.' The British use of irony, witty quips, self-deprecation and understatements has and continues to tickle me.
In addition to comedy, silly British phrases like 'squirty cream' (AKA whipped cream), the lack of open container laws, people knowing how to properly stand/move on an escalator and gun control will be amongst the things that I will miss the most about this great nation.
As my visa nears its expiration, I must now legally satisfy a 12-month 'cooling off period' before I can reapply for another Tier 2 UK work permit.
For the next year, I will have to allow the silhouette of London's skyline to temporarily fade into the background as I relocate to the land of Oktoberfest, pretzels and efficiency (Munich, Germany), for a forced adventure.
Five years after moving to the UK (nearly to the day), I find myself back at London Heathrow, with my five suitcases, leaving behind another beloved, rent-controlled flat, lots of great friends/colleagues and a city that I love. But, this time, it is not good-bye, it's see you soon!
Watch this space for #SherExit updates, as I leave Britain and enter Europe.
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